Your Black History: Remembering Reginald F. Lewis, Black America's first Wall Street baron
By Victor Trammell
black blue dog.com
Bob Johnson, former co-owner of BET is known as America's first black billionaire. However, long before the infamous purchase of BET by Viacom, another black man was sitting atop his own billion-dollar business empire.
During the 1980s, the name Reginald F. Lewis (pictured) was synonymous with black wealth and financial power. Though he came from humble beginnings, Lewis rose to prominence as one of America's most successful business leaders. His amazing life is chronicled in an official biography (which he co-wrote) titled, Why Should White Guys Have All the Fun?: How Reginald Lewis Created a Billion-Dollar Business Empire.
Reginald F. Lewis was born on December 7, 1942 in a Baltimore, Maryland. He once described his neighborhood as "semi-tough." He attended grades K-12 in the local public school system. After graduating high school, he entered Virginia State College on a football scholarship. Even though he eventually lost his scholarship due to injury, he graduated with honors from Virginia State College in 1965. He received his bachelor's degree in economics.
For his graduate program, Lewis attended Harvard Law School. After taking a course on securities law, he decided where he wanted to take his career after graduation. He wrote his third year essay on corporate takeovers. Lewis eventually graduated from Harvard Law in 1968. After finishing law school, he went to work for Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison, a high-powered law firm in New York.
After spending just two years working for the prestigious law firm, he founded his own Wall Street law firm. While running his own firm, Lewis helped minority-owned businesses secure the necessary capital using Minority Enterprise Small Business Investment Companies. A staunch desire to do his own investment deals inspired Lewis to start an investment firm in 1983 called the TLC Group L.P.
Lewis' biggest financial achievement was the buyout of Beatrice Foods in 1987. Lewis purchased the company for $985 million. He also renamed the company TLC Beatrice International. Most of the company's businesses were operated in Europe. As the new Chairman and CEO, Lewis moved swiftly toward paying down the company's debt and increasing brand value. By 1992, the company was posting sales of over $1.6 billion annually.
Reginald F. Lewis died in January of 1993 at the age of 50. His multi-faceted and legendary career is indeed proof that white males are not the only race of men in America who know how to earn, cultivate, and preserve vast financial resources. In Lewis' biography, he made a profound statement about doing business in Europe and American racism. It reads:
"In Europe, the major difference is there is less overt hostility that's purely based on color. As you know, you can be insulted anywhere, but I've always been treated very well in Europe. Here in this country, there is a certain conspiratorial desire-regardless of what you do, how much you earn, you're still black. And that's meant to demean. But it only demeans you if you allow it to."
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